The Cocaine Trade Report


In a report published today, Wednesday 3 March, the Home Affairs Committee warns that a deadly, socially and environmentally destructive drug seems to be becoming more widely acceptable in the UK, and says more must be done to tackle the demand side in the UK alongside international efforts to disrupt smuggling.

The Committee concludes that the doubling in wholesale price of cocaine at the UK border between 1999 and 2009 suggests that law enforcement efforts have had some impact on supply to the UK, but says it saw no evidence that enforcement has affected demand or the ready availability of the drug on the street. The price of a ‘line’ of cocaine at street level has, conversely, halved since 1999 with some seizures now containing as little as 5% cocaine.

The Committee warns against the dangerous misconception that cocaine is a ‘safe’ drug:  in 2008 some 235 sudden deaths were associated with cocaine, and it is linked to heart disease, long-term erosion of cognitive brain function, and of extremely toxic effects when combined with alcohol. The Committee was concerned by reports that residential rehabilitation is not readily available and recommends that the Government increase funding for this treatment. It warns that the restriction of the definition of a ‘problem drug user’ to opiate and/or crack users only may have reduced treatment available to cocaine powder users.

The Committee was impressed with the high-visibility anti-cocaine operations run by some police forces in town centres at night, which combine zero-tolerance enforcement with treatment. It urges more Chief Constables to run such operations and recommends that all police forces invest in hand-held drug trace machines.

There has been a large increase in cocaine powder users, and they have diversified from the ‘rich and famous’ to a far wider cross-section of society. The Committee says  greater attention must therefore be focused on targeting demand. The number of adults reporting cocaine use within the past year quintupled from 1996 to 2008/09, as did the number of young people, bucking the overall trend of a fall in illicit drug use in the UK. The number of individuals in treatment for primary cocaine powder addiction has also risen, from 10,770 in 2006/07 to 12,592 in 2007/08.

The Committee praises SOCA’s and UKBA’s general approach, namely to actively disrupt the cocaine trade overseas and thereby prevent it reaching the UK. But it says it is far more difficult to establish how successful this strategic approach has been to date. SOCA seized 85.1 tonnes of cocaine worldwide in 2008/09, but it is impossible to determine what proportion was due to SOCA alone, since this figure includes seizures made with other partners where the extent of SOCA’s input is not transparent. The Committee was shocked to discover only 3.5 tonnes of the estimated 25-30 tonnes of cocaine which does enter the UK border was seized in the UK last year. The Committee says interception of 12-14% of cocaine reaching the UK is ‘woefully inadequate’, while UKBA’s target to seize 2.4 tonnes of cocaine this year is ‘deeply unambitious’ and lower than the amount it seized in both previous years. It recommends that a more nuanced scoring system be developed to grade disruptive activity and measure the extent and impact of SOCA and UKBA operations overseas.

The Committee suggests UKBA’s low seizure target reflects a culture of complacency regarding the interception of goods as opposed to people and recommends that individual cocaine seizure targets for UKBA, SOCA and the police be replaced by a joint seizure target for UK law enforcement agencies. The Committee calls for the appointment of an Independent Drugs Advisor to ensure that Government drugs policy is fully implemented in an integrated manner across all the various agencies responsible.

Rt Hon Keith Vaz MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

“There can be no relenting in the fight against cocaine trafficking. The international trade in cocaine causes untold human misery and social and environmental destruction  We heard pitiful stories of drugs mules caught up in a cycle of exploitation where they were forced to make the same journey over and over, in some cases having to swallow 20 pellets of cocaine, or carry packages the size of a pint glass in body cavities. We were equally horrified to learn that for every few lines of cocaine snorted in a London club, four square metres of rainforest is destroyed in Colombia. Our evidence overwhelmingly proved that cocaine deserves its Class A status. That fact that it seems to have become more socially acceptable and seen as a ‘safe’, middle-class drug is a myth that must be tackled, with much greater effort put into the demand side of the trade here in the UK.”

“Cocaine is a dangerous and lethal drug. We are glad to see that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs came to very similar conclusions to us only this week on this point. The Government must now take heed of both our report and its own Advisory Council on this issue. The Council’s review should pay particular attention to the disturbing evidence of links to brain damage and sudden death which we highlight in this report”.

“Tackling both international supply and domestic demand is a huge and complex task. We would do well to appoint a independent advisor to act a focus for these efforts, but, as we recommend in this report, it is vital too that we develop more transparent ways to measure how effective our law enforcement agencies are being in disrupting supply to the UK.”

Session 2009-2010: No. 37
3 March 2010